28.07.2009 - 05.08.2009 35 °C
Andrew had shared stories with me about the challenges of hard seat train rides in China, but as our first 2 and a half months had been quite comfortable and relaxing, nothing we had seen so far could have prepared me for this journey we took from Hohhot in Inner Mongolia to Lanzhou. While I knew it had to happen at some point, I was not looking forward to it. Upon arriving at Hohhot (after the 24hr train ride from Ulaan Bataar), we were told that our next 19 hour train ride had sold out of sleeper berths for two days, but decided to bite the bullet and take the hard seats as we couldn't afford to wait that long...the trip may have been bearable had tickets been sold on the basis of one seat per passenger - however, in addition to the 900 or so tickets with allocated seats, about the same number of standing tickets were sold, and this number seemed to increase at every stop with many more people cramming into the carriages now resembling sardine cans at bursting point. Those unfortunate people without seats were fighting with each other over any vacant seats (this includes half a butt cheek's space on the edge of yours that you might have left invitingly open for someone to squeeze into)...our nightmare deepened when we discovered that in the whole train, our window seemed to be the only one that was jammed tightly shut - not great with so many people in a confined space, half of whom are inevitably chain smokers...! During the 19 hour train ride, I went to the bathroom only once. Not because I didn't have to go, but after my first attempt of waiting over an hour (it took me 10 minutes to just walk through one train car), I decided not to drink anymore and to hold it as long as I could until we reached our destination. As you will see in the video, there were people sitting in the sinks outside of the bathroom, sleeping on top of each other on the floor, everyone was smoking, yelling, and sweating profusely (naturally with that many people crammed in). The lights stayed on all night, people were playing loud techno Chinese music on their mobile phones (oh, and did I mention smoking already?). We were fortunate that the majority of people cleared out of the train around 2:30 am, so we were able to half lay down on the hard seat for a few hours. As hard as it was, I kept thinking...thank god I am not standing in that chaos. As bad as it was (and very funny at times watching the locals-especially this guy with huge glasses that kept popping up over the seat to look at me), it remains the most memorable transportation journey on our trip. We arrived in Lanzhou in the early hours of the morning, before then awaking like zombies to views of mountains in the desert and caves inhabited by locals. Wait, was that a dream...no it was real! In this part of the world, some people still live in caves.
The last month has seen us following the Great Wall west, and it has been interesting seeing the changes in construction techniques along the way. Naturally, as the west is mainly desert, the Great Wall out here is mud based as opposed to the grey bricks that most people have seen in Beijing and history says that as they moved east, they learned new techinques for building the wall and had access to more technological advances making the Wall more sophisticated as it was being built. This fort in Jiayuguan guarded the Silk Road and was very important in protecting this famous trade route. This fort is also one of earliest and the furthest western points of the Great Wall. As with most places in China these days, it was pretty touristy. With tourism, comes money. It cost an arm and a leg to get in, but there were quite a few activities inside such as camel riding, a dance show of armed guards, and shooting bow and arrows from the top of the fort which kept us busy for most of the day. We also spent a few hours riding tandem bike around the fort and visited an excellent museum. It was a nice stop on our way to the sand dunes of Dunhuang as we continued our "Journey to the West".
This must be my favorite picture taken of a picture of two people posing, as the chinese do in China. Classic.
I have realized that with every great place we visit, I say it is my favorite place in China. Even though I now have many favorites, Dunhuang remains at the top of the list. It is a great place to relax for a few days, which is exactly what we did...much needed after the 19 hour train ride from hell. We stayed in a lovely courtyard guesthouse, and slept in a little log cabin, all of which was next to the massive sand dunes outside of town. We have been looking forward to Xinjiang particularily for their amazing kebabs and grilled naan bread, and we were very excited by the wonderful night market where we were able to fill up on lamb kebabs, fresh naan bread and local fresh draft RAW beer. Then we went for midnight foot massages...heaven!!
Our big exciting adventure in Dunhuang was a 2 day camel trek through the sand dunes. Sitting on a camel is actually a little boring but staring out at the soft curves of the neverending sand dunes were mesmerizing. We reached our campsite around sunset on the first day and climbed up to the top of the highest sand dune in sight. Once we nearly reached the top, we noticed a sand storm coming, and the couple we were with told us a story about being stuck in a sand storm - it didn't sound pleasant - so we made a run for it down the dunes to the campsite. It was all very exciting, but once we reached the bottom, the storm had settled which was a good thing in the end because we still needed to set up our tents, and that definitely would not have been fun doing that in the middle of a sandstorm!
Our lovely view of the sunrise from the top of the dune overlooking our campsite...
One of the big touristy things to do in Dunhuang is to see the Oasis in the middle of the sand dunes. After the massive amount of entrance fees we have already paid out on this trip, it was frustrating to find out it costs 120 RMB per person (up from 30 RMB when Andrew was last there) just to look at an oasis and some sand dunes...And once you were inside, you have to pay for cars to drive you to the oasis and of course anything else you might want to do such as sand-boarding...China is no longer a cheap place to travel and the rate of inflation for tourists (ie in ticket prices, transport and accommodation) is massive compared to the cost of everyday goods, food etc many of which have barely changed!
We did however, hear from some other travellers that it was possible to still get into the dunes without paying by walking around the fence (I guess that was what the Chinese have been spending the entrance fees on...in a few years, the fence will probably extend around the whole desert to discourage cheapskates like us!). We only had to watch out for two "angry men" armed with megaphones whose job it was to guard the integrity of the fence...so we headed out and after seeing that the first guard wasn't there, we continued on. Suddenly, we saw the second one, who spoke to us in Chinese telling us to go no further...As we were not doing anything wrong by just walking along a fence, we ignored him (and conveniently forgot how to speak Chinese!), but he was very persistent and indeed, an angry man, who followed us all the way to the end of the fence screaming on his megaphone the entire time.
When we finally reached the end of the fence we were able to start heading into the sand dunes next to the oasis site and saw a group of about 20 other Chinese tourists already half-way up the sand dune doing the same thing! He then left us alone for a bit, but perhaps he just needed new batteries for his megaphone because he was soon back shouting at us and all the Chinese to "Come down now!". We continued up the dune (as did the others), and finally found our peace at the very top to enjoy a beautiful sunset. We didn't realize what the fuss was until we were about two-thirds of the way up the dune and saw the oasis in all of its glory...probably even a better view from there than the people who paid 120 RMB! It was so peaceful and had the temperature not dropped dramatically after the sun went down, I could have stayed there all night.
The things we do for a photo...!
We also went to a little movie set town, where they still apparently still film some movies based in some of the dynasty periods and had fun playing with all of the fake stuff.
Last but not least, we also visited the famous 1000 Buddhist Mogao Caves in Dunhuang too, which were incredible. Since we weren't allowed to take photos inside the caves and couldn't get a good view of them outside, we took this picture inside the museum and also took a video of a replica cave inside the museum so you can get an idea of what it is like there. It was interesting moving from cave to cave looking at the differences over time with the ones built in the later dynasties were more intricate and the paintings very detailed. As you must visit the caves in a tour group, we joined the Chinese language group (which saved us RMB20 each) and meant we heard a lot of comments about the foreign raiders who stole many of China's treasures from these caves...! I wonder if the English groups would have been the same and, although not necessarily a justification for their actions, I do hate to think what would have happened to all of those undoubtedly valuable historical artefacts during the Cultural Revolution if they had been left in China!!
This cracked me up all night long and the week to follow...